Progressive educators claimed that their theories and methods were based on science. In particular, they employed and emphasized the importance of IQ testing.

During the early 20th century, researchers in Europe and America developed tests designed to identify not merely a student’s knowledge, but his capacity to learn. In 1916, Lewis Terman, a professor of educational psychology at Stanford University, drawing upon the earlier work of French psychologist Alfred Binet and other researchers, developed the Stanford-Binet intelligence test (known today as the IQ test), which henceforth would be used to measure a student’s intellectual ability. Terman hoped that the intelligence test would “facilitate progressive reforms in education, especially identification of the feebleminded and the gifted, curricular differentiation, vocational guidance, and grouping based on students’ ability.”

Terman and many others advocating widespread IQ testing in the schools were eugenicists who despaired that “there is no possibility at present of convincing society that they [so-called feebleminded persons] should not be allowed to reproduce.”

The next best thing was to segment the students to ensure that the intellectually gifted received cognitive training and those of less intelligence were taught vocational skills.

By the mid-1920s, psychologists had developed seventy-five IQ tests to gauge the intellectual ability of students of all ages. Each year during this era, some four million students took an intelligence test.

As educational historian Diane Ravitch notes, “the public schools employed the tests to predict which students were likely to go to college and which should be guided into vocational programs.” However, “the decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy, since only those in the college track took the courses that would prepare them for college.”